Therapy Beyond the Problem
Enter our therapy session.
She was cordial but reserved. Friendly, but still distant. Showed up to therapy every week, but seemed dubious and calculating.
When we first started working together, she admitted she didn’t really believe in therapy or counseling, and that was okay, because, even though it’s my job, there are times I don’t believe in therapy, either.
She carried a history of labels, dismissed as a diagnosis, perceived as mere fragmented pieces of a sickness, rather than a shining and whole radiating soul. In the past, therapy made her feel worse, made her even more aware of how emotionally bruised and beaten she had been. It felt depressing for her, and it would have been depressing for me, too.
On paper, she didn’t look good. In fact, she looked terrible. Addiction problems, mental health issues, legal disasters and financial despair. On paper, she represented a living and breathing emergency, a “low-functioning” client with a poor prognosis.
But, herein lies the insidious problem of the medical model. Categorizing feels safe. After all, a staggering 1 in 5 adults meets diagnostic criteria for a mental illness. With statistics like these, it is simple to only see the sickness and only see what’s wrong, what’s bad, what’s deviant and destructive. It is easy to only focus on a selected cluster of symptoms and maladaptive behaviors.
What’s the point of therapy?
Even though half of Americans seek mental health treatment in a given year, we still don’t have a clear, working definition for therapy.
Some argue it’s to fix yourself. You spill all your secrets to someone in order for this elite professional to challenge you and teach you new ways of coping. Others highlight that it’s simply meant to be a soundboard to process various fears and struggles. I agree with these sentiments. I agree this is all necessary and effective for healing.
But, this misses the big picture. It skirts right over the nuances of the delicate art and science that come with this craft. Because let’s be honest: a self-help book can teach you these basic skills. A self-help book can show you how to cope, how to adapt, how to be an allegedly “better person.” Change may not be easy, but its process can definitely be captured in the helpful, black-and-white pages of a library book.
But, in our therapy, we needed to deconstruct some of those horrific labels and negative perceptions she held about herself. We needed her to release this rigid victim mentality, that she was internally held captive as a bad person, that she was somehow broken and unfixable, that she was doomed to this self-deprecating cycle of despair.
None of that was true unless she still wanted to believe it. She had made costly mistakes. She had hurt people and hurt herself. She had fallen into a rut of life that no longer suited her or her well-being. All of these felt paralyzing- or maybe they felt like sinking in quicksand without having anything to hold onto.
Solely focusing on the bad stuff isn’t my therapy. Underneath the defenses and the fears and the guarded walls she had put between herself and the world, she had so much to offer. She had so much beauty, so much fierceness, so much to polish and renew. Maybe nobody had shown it to her before. Maybe she was too scared to even look at it. Maybe, as a society, we’re so quick to judge and dismiss, rather than examine and embrace.
She needed to look at the beauty, at the potential, and at the wounds that had traumatized her. She needed to know she was a good person, that she deserved a better life, and that she deserved joy and peace. She needed to feel this in her pores and in her soul, and she needed to believe that labels could be changed and transformations could be made.
Therapy can explore the problem, but I refuse to let it be only about the problem. She was more than her problem. She had an identity so much larger and greater than the problem.
This is how people move and how we transform from victims to survivors to thrivers.
And by tapping into that infinite space, we were able to unleash some of her most amazing and raw parts of self. By tapping into all her worth, all her potential, and all that made her radiate, we were able to move beyond just the negative and just the chaos.
After all, healing doesn’t come from a place of shame. It comes from a pathway of acceptance and faith. That’s why I do therapy.